put together a talk tonight that's going to focus, like your studies
have been, on text. I work with it extensively, in other languages
and native languages, but also in my own prose, in a sense. It's
a very casual, diaristic approach to words. Also, I work with
it in the public art, for which I am better known, and how that
aligns with the meaning of the words and the premise of why the
words are important. That follows into issues of image and ceremony,
as well. I find that that relates a lot to my painting, in terms
of titling. There will be important words that exist, from a ceremonial
perspective that may not be a word. I think often we get captivated
by the thought of words being a literal image, as in text, but
there are also certainly a lot of spoken words that are important.
There's that element in my work, as well. I want to go through
the public art projects and the diaristic drawings. For me, it
deals a lot with geography and particular sites. It's not just
a word that I choose or that I relate to in my own little life.
It's much broader. Some of the talk will go into Oklahoma, but
also link with South America and Peru, then later to Australia.
I've been working a lot in Australia, lately, collaborating with
the artists there. Then we'll go back to America. There are sites,
words and images that are very particular, so the talk will deal
with that geography, as well; what you do when you find that place,
what do you say about it. Often, the word is what comes forth
out of the experience. The photograph is also a very important
tool and way to communicate messages, so most of these photos
that you'll see tonight were taken by me, as a way to document
things when I'm working and traveling. That's another way of telling
first slide deals with home. It's western Oklahoma, on the Cheyenne
reservation. It's a photo taken a few years ago, with the red
earth and juniper trees that are there. It's kind of an ancient
ocean, in a sense, that is now populated with people. It was the
edge of the sea at one point, so there's a lot of red sand there
that is a remnant of that sea. The ocean has become very important
to me, so I like to mention that Oklahoma was once a beach. These
trees are very important, from living on the reservation, which
I did for about twelve years, and walking and hunting. I had some
dogs and I actually hunted quail and rabbits. I had a garden,
and ate from what was there. It was a matter of not really survival,
but it was minimal survival, in a sense. I was out on the land
every day, no matter if it was a hundred degrees or ten. I went
out in the bush and related to what was there, so the trees became
very important. You'll see later how that kind of plays into my
you look at words and text, you often get to politics pretty quick,
in America, anyway. These are the principal chiefs of the Cheyenne
Nation, in the 1870s, and then there are also the leaders of the
warrior society of the same era. There were four main societies.
The word for "four" is "neuf." This is a photograph after the
Washita Massacre; they were rounded up and the tribe surrendered
to Colonel Custer. At this time, they were taken as prisoners
of war and put into prison in Fort Marion, in St. Augustine, Florida.
They were taken with their families and exiled, because they were
leaders of their nation. That was before the land run and before
the state of Oklahoma; it was still Indian Territory.
this played a key role in my education and in my life: just learning
about this incident and this kind of behavior on the part of the
government of this nation. Rather than accept a truce, they took
the leaders away from the people that they led, in order to make
them subordinate. There was also a great indoctrination that occurred
around the same time. Captain Pratt was their jailer, who was
later awarded for his activities. They gave him a university to
head. He became the president of Carlyle after he left Florida.
The kind of indoctrination that he was involved with was a change,
as he called it, from the Bad Indian into a White Man. He cut
their hair and put them into a military uniform. Some of them
actually died in prison, and some of them came back.
to think about textcertainly all these warriors spoke Tsistsistas,
or Cheyenne, in English. As they became captive, there was actually
a list made of their names; of course, it was in English. I made
a painting that I exhibited in the Community House Gallery, when
it was in Midtown. It was called "Fort Marion Lizards." It became
a pretty pivotal piece of work; it was very direct in how I created
it. I found a list that Captain Pratt had written, himself, in
Florida. I did research, as I do wherever I go, and I found it
in the archives in Oklahoma. I just worked from his own handwriting.
I started at the top of the list, where it said, "Heap o' Birds,"
"Bear Shield and Mahnimick," "Medicine Water," and so on.
"Mahnimick" means "eagle head," and that was one exception, where
it was still in Cheyenne language. When they were captured was
when English came. That's when, say, "Muyamunahiscuss," which
meant "magpie birds, many of them together," became "heap o' birds."
That's when the domination came; language changed, and you had
to deal with that reality. In this piece, I actually described
the work as citing that the language captured the men as much
as the army. From that day forward, to control English is one
of your main duties, or how it controls you is the struggle.
enough, I was in Philadelphia going to grad school, and for about
three years I was on the East Coast. My first public art was in
Times Square, for a computer billboard. It was a pretty imposing
type of opportunity. Myself, a sort of prophetic group going on
in time, with David Hammons, Barbara Kruger, Keith Haring, Jenny
Holzer, Hans Haacke, all the upstarts who were working in the
early 80s. It was the first time they gave anyone carte blanche
at the computer billboard, which is where the big TV is now, at
Times Square. I came to New York from Oklahoma, where I was living
at the time. I was working at home by those trees, living on that
canyon. Then I made this piece, called "In Our Language." Again,
it deals directly with language and the politics of language.
My first trip here, when I came to work on the piece, I made one
of my paintings on the billboard; I did all sorts of fancy graphics,
but I found that what I needed to do was let the Cheyenne people
speak to the white people. This is a piece in our language. Each
word comes down one at a time. This is 20 by 40 feet. It was about
a fifty second message, and we later made a film, too, with interpretations.
This goes into the description in the Cheyenne language of what
the white man is. As you can see, "white man" still remains to
this day "spider," in Cheyenne. Look at the actions of the white
man on the reservation, the containment, the capture, even just
the invention of the reservation itself, and the barbed wire fences.
All those words that the Cheyenne made came way before the fences.
They saw in the future that this relationship would be like living
with spiders. It is also an interesting metaphor in that when
a spider kills something, it wraps it up. My grandmother told
me that the white men were thought to be very peculiar people
when they came to Oklahoma, because they had so many layers of
things on. There was underwear, outerwear, coats and hats and
so on. They thought they were cocooned people.
that was the message I put on the billboard. It ran for about
three weeks. The message was actually made in Oklahoma, on about
six pieces of paper, and then I came to New York and put it on
again, the issues of politics and the power of language have always
been prevalent in my work. This is a screen print, about six feet
tall, called "Telling Many Magpies, Telling Black Wolf, Telling
Hachivi." My name is Hachivi in my language, my great-grandfather
was Black Wolf and his father was Many Magpies, who was in prison
in Florida. I was looking at this lineage of racism in America,
basically, and what kind of ideas that people are concerned about,
related to native people. They're often about objects, buildings,
streets and cities. A lot of it really isn't about native people
who are living now; it's just about icons that have their names.
Part of that blindness in America is institutionalized. You get
it in your history books, all over in school, in literature and
what not. There are so many tired European metaphors and schools
of thought. I just came from Yale, which was suffocating. It's
the same way; it's built on the premise that Europe is the center
of the earth.
me, as I criticize the dominant culture, you have to work to educate
yourself, also. You can't just whine; you have to go forward and
learn what you need to know. This is the Andes Mountains in Peru.
I traveled there on my own, mainly to look at that kind of classical
culture, in terms of urban centers and what not. I also went into
the Amazon rain forests, up the Urubamba River to Machu Picchu,
going out of Cuzco. It was an important journey to make. I also
went to college in London, and went to the Vatican and traveled
all over Europe as well. But there are other classical cities
on this earth besides the Vatican. So it was good to go and look
at the work that had been done in this native world. This man
helped me; his name is Benny and he was from the nation there.
The other important thing I found had a very important name in
their language. Here, in their language, is the Inti Watana.
It's actually the mountain that's carved at Machu Picchu. It's
not a rock brought to the mountain; it is the mountain. It's formed
in this manner because of its name and its reference. It's there
to utilize a concept, almost like a prayer, to take the sun and
tie it down on the winter solstice. So when the sun is moving
the farthest away from the earth, and things are the coldest,
which brings death and scarcity of food, they would take a gold
disk and tie it to the rock. The language is speaking about, if
you have a llama and you want to tether it, Watana
would be to do that. Inti is the sun, so it's tie
down the sun.
been very involved, as you'll see in the talk tonight, with renewal
sites, where the nation will renew itself and the earth. It was
just thrilling to find Intiwatana there. It was even
more glorious than the Machu Picchu city, because it had this
link with the stars, the sun and the earth. It made a big impression
the time, I was working on a large exhibition at the Wexner Center,
in Ohio, and I had a solo exhibition at the University Museum
at Berkeley. I took that kind of research that I was doing in
South America, and decided to create four directions of the earth
in the museum. We actually built a gallery in the four directions
of the earth. The paintings were on the north end, facing South
Dakota, in a way, which is important for the Cheyenne people.
Those are the neuf seriesfour paintings were done, and they
were exhibited four times, like offerings. On the far right is
the east wall, and it's called Color and Sky: East. These
are all pastels that I created after I returned. I was also in
Mexico as well. It was great to be there. It was also part of
what was informing me. This is the west wall, which is called,
Boost West, about California. The south is called Peru
South. If you look at the words at the top, tie down
sun, that goes back to Intiwatana. That was my premise on
the language at this point, in the studio work, to give a fragment
of an impression, and hopefully it would resonate with somebody.
They would combine it with their life and make something else
out of it. It's not really like a paragraph or a sentence, a totally
didactic kind of experience. But that's what got me going, were
the things that happened on the journey. This is about ten feet
tall; they're 20 by 30 inches each.
that, there was a big turn in my work. Some of it was accidental,
and some of it was that the pastels had played out. I'd made about
150 of these drawings over about eight years or so. I had always
preceded the pastels by making a list of words, in magic marker,
of words that I was attracted to. This is a small page of 18 by
24 inches or so. It is just a remnant of a list; later, some of
these became big drawings. I was involved in making these lists;
I would circle one that I liked, like the gun to pipe,
or all around you, and I'd make a drawing this big
with pastels. I'd eventually make fifteen of them together and
two things happened. One thing was, though I enjoyed making the
pastels, they had kind of played out. I'd done a lot of them.
The other thing was that I had worked so hard on them, they took
an aggressive stroke, that I tore a muscle in my arm making the
drawings. I went to the doctor and had to get a brace, and I couldn't
make the same stroke any more. They asked if I could make the
stroke to the left, but that wouldn't work. It had to go to the
right. Something had to change. I got a bigger studio space at
that time, and I put up twenty of these lists. Eventually, I really
got involved with all these magic marker drawings, and with the
more immediate thought of the phrase, rather than the artification
of it in pastel. Though I've still done that, anyway; but I try
to be very immediate with it. I also got big paper. I got seven
foot by twenty yard, beautiful rag paper. I would hang it up in
the studio. The neuf paintings were about the same size as well.
These are about 1994 or 95. I'd been in Australia working,
and then I came back. Those marker drawings are what I'm working
with now, and they came out of that experience of those lists.
are kind of the diaristic approach of either making your own diary
in your own notebook, or coming home and going to the studio and
writing some words on the wall. Or painting those big paintings,
and then having a thought and writing it. It's a real nice balance
of a literal and an abstract thing, though I don't know if it's
that polemic. If you're making an abstract painting, you can walk
over and write a very direct phrase on the wall. Although it's
coded, it's not in a real clear language.
is called Want. This is called Young Look. I really
got involvedI still amwith the structure, the scale
of it. There's tiny letters and big letters. It's almost as if
the paintings could talk, they'd say all these things. It's a
similar structure to water or movement across the surface.
is the newest one, called Monetish. It's about sexual intercourse,
but because of the blurring, someone called it Monetish.
It's a jittery, visual kind of thing happening. Also, it's evidently
a hip thing to say that if something is ugly, if it looks real
good from far away but up close it's not so good, it's Monetish.
I don't know if that's slang now and we missed it all, but I like
that. I like that word.
goes back to the public art. There are all these kinds of strands
running simultaneously; there's not a public art period, a drawing
period, and so on. It's all running at the same time. This is
in Pittsburgh, and it's a monument that the Daughters of the American
Revolution put together in 1930. I did a public art piece with
Mel Chin, Mierle Ukeles, and it was a great opportunity to work
in Pittsburgh. It struck me that this monument has existed for
over sixty years. If you look really closely, in the second paragraph,
His victory determined the destiny of the great west, and established
Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the United States. That's a pretty
biased statement, I would say. It was actually done to kind of
slam the Eastern Europeans that were working in the mines and
so on. The DAR people wanted to make sure that the Brits were
the top of the ladder here, and everyone else was below. So I
took exception to that, but I just took the words that the DAR
had usedvictory, destiny, Anglo-Saxon
supremacy. The DAR owns about twenty feet of the state park.
They have a little thing in the ground telling you when you enter
their turf. I made about twenty-four signs that recounted their
language. But I added three words, who owns history.
I made it red, white and blue. It caused an incredible stir, almost
a riot, when these words actually became a sign. People hadn't
read the DAR thing, so it kind of drew attention to that. It hasn't
really changed the monument; it still sits there, as a proclamation.
School kids come there on field trips, and they go to the monumentOK,
there's the truth, that's the monument. It shows you the bias
that exists out there. People actually tore these signs in half
and shredded the metal, so I guess it was a pretty effective piece,
in that way.
also done a lot of work that commemorates or honors nations. It's
critical of the dominant culture, but it's made to honor the native
people. I've done a lot of panels around the country. The first
one was done here in New York City in '88, at City Hall Park.
We did twelve of these panels. Oddly enough, it also caused a
lot of controversy, believe it or not, in New York City. Mayor
Koch actually censored six of them. He said it was too many Indian
tribes to have around his office. He got very nervous about having
all these nations. We had twelve; we were just saying, Today
your host is Oneida; today your host is Mohawk, Tuscarora, etc.
We were only allowed to put six up in this town.
also been working on the Northwest coast a lot. I have a permanent
piece in downtown Seattle, called Day/Night. It was one
of the first pieces I did in porcelain. It's porcelain enamel
on steel, and it combines a bit of the drawing and some of the
printmaking and painting together. It's a beautiful, ancient technology.
The statue existed of Chief Seattlehis real name is Sealf,
actuallyin the center, and then the two panels are my contribution,
translated into his language, which is Seacth and Unshootseed.
There was an elder who could translate my prose into his language.
It's a great technology; it's porcelain on steel, cooked in a
great furnace. You can also do screen printing with enamel ink,
and cook it again, so the enamel, the steel and the porcelain
fuse together. Right now, I'm working on a major commission for
the Denver Art Museum, where there will be twelve of these ten
foot tall standing forms in a circular, medicine wheel type pattern,
using the same technology. By the way, all the signs in the subway
are made by a company in Dallas that uses the same technology.
we used the language of Chief Seattle, and here is the translation.
Now the streets are our home, with the dollar signs and
crosses swimming around the words. On the left, Faraway brothers
and sisters, we still remember you. The park is called Pioneer
Square, and it's actually a very interesting crossroads, literally,
of indigenous people that live there, that are homeless, that
might be drinking a bottle of wine and hanging out all day. You've
also got some totem poles that were stolen from Vancouver that
are up in the same park. Then you've got all the tourists coming
to take the Underground Seattle Tour. There's a ticket booth right
there. So it's a big crossroads of what Seattle thinks it is,
what it doesn't want to be, and all that. I chose that site. I
made that piece, in some ways, primarily for the native people
that are on the street. Here are two gentlemen who are watching
over it for me. They do a good job. It had a good life up there.
I actually put sage on top of it that I renew when I go to Seattle.
It had an intent to be somewhat ceremonial, although I avoid that
most of the time. But this piece was for the people, I guess.
is a piece that was out in California, in San Jose. This is a
good time to talk a little bit about the issue of private and
public art, and studio art that could be somewhat private, but
then when you go out into the street, you're open to interpretation.
The people complete your work by what's on the street. I had an
exhibit of studio work in the museum in San Jose, but we had to
address where the museum was, also. That's when I did research
about California and the missions. We made a bus piece. This was
put on twenty-four buses that drove around for about two months.
It was just talking about what the Church brought to the native
people, which was syphilis, smallpox and forced baptisms. This
one became very hot, as well. The Catholic Church really freaked
out when this happened. They actually censored the piece, but
the power of the community got the work back out on the buses.
I was pretty supported by the bus company and everybody else.
It was really great. It also started a discourse, which is the
mission of public art. It's not that it's too compelling; it's
not going to change everyone's mind. But I think what it does
do is start the discourse about the subject, and then everyone
else has to settle that their own way. Missions, before this piece
was happening, were just taken for granted as these wonderful
institutions. Now we have to look at it in a different way.
piece was in Minneapolis, at the Walker Art Center. I had a major
show at the Walker, a sort of retrospective. There, again, it
was necessary to look at the history of Minnesota. These are forty
panels, and the text here says, December 26, 1868, Mamkato,
Minnesota. Death by hanging, execution order issued by President
of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. So Abraham Lincoln
wrote death warrants for thirty-eight Dakota warriors during the
Civil War. He had them hung all together on one gallows, in Mankato,
Minnesota. (In response to inaudible comment:) Yes, there were
supposed to be 300 of them. It was the largest mass execution
in America's history, which Lincoln initiated during the Civil
War. I made a panel for every warrior. Then I worked with some
kids from local junior highs. They were native youth, and they
were also related to the warriors. There are a lot of people still
living there. It's a complex topic, but includes the politics
of wheat, farmland and moving people. Dakota people, as you might
know, are known to be in South Dakota. That's what you think of,
but these people were from there as well. Because of this incidence
and other political situations, they were moved out of there.
I used forty pounds of Pillsbury flour to make this arc. The mill
was just up the river a bit. I also chose the river because the
warriors were ceremonial people. They'd go through the same ceremony
that I do, as a Cheyenne people, which was to go without water
for a period of time. Water becomes a very important renewable,
or honoring, source, to you. I put them on the water. Right now,
I've been in Minneapolis off and on. I'm going back up for a public
art project with a couple of other artists. We're picking a site
right next to the Gold Metal Mills, for this piece to go back
up. It's been down for over six years. It's hard to get the work
to stay, as it's provocative to certain people.
is Cleveland, as you can see. It's the same situation of having
an art show in the gallery and then looking at what to do in terms
of commenting on the location of the place. Here's the billboard.
There, again, it became very sensitive to the baseball team and
the city of Cleveland. They thought this was a fine, honoring
symbol for somebody. They keep talking about that. My premise
was that it's certainly a very insensitive, gross symbol, but
they tried to present it as though it was an honoring symbol for
native people, therefore it's ours. They've given it to us; so
I did what I wanted with it. I figured, if it was mine, then I
could. But then they said, You're tearing up our logo. That's
illegal to take our logo." I said, "I thought it was mine. I thought
you gave it to me to honor us. They said, No, no. It's
an infringement of copyright, and on and on. But I think it's
worked out pretty well. It was banned for a little while; then
we went to the press and it became a big story in Cleveland. Eventually
we got money donated to make three billboards, instead of one.
It became sort of a rallying cry for local native groups, and
I turned it over to them. They made bumper stickers, T-shirts,
and all kinds of things. Again, it's important just to kind of
voice the issue, talk about it in the press, in the communities,
and so on. It's called American Leagues.
is one of the newer ones. This was the Public Art Biennial, at
the Neuberger Museum, in Purchase, New York. I did some work with
Dennis Adams at the show, and he said he got lost at the museum.
This is right on campus. It just talks again about the word, purchase,
and what that means as far as native territory and people's habits
and history. Eventually it's taken for granted that, yeah, it
was purchased, but I don't think you can say that about all the
did this work in a shopping mall. It's called Maxed Out Yet?
I like this a lot. We show work, we won't say what you spend.
The shopping mall was in bad trouble, economically, so they gave
us storefronts because they couldn't rent them out. We put up
stuff about shopping too much. Then we got a grant from the people
and made shopping bags that said this that you bought when you
came shopping. I can implicate myself; my credit cards are all
maxed out, too. Everyone spends too much money. I really like
the context of where text goes and I try to address that as well,
even if it's about business.
is a piece that was up in Wadsworth Athenaeum, in Hartford. It
just came down a few months ago. They finally had enough of it,
I guess. It was too troubling, I'm sure, to them as well. This
is called Dunning the Ground. It's Nathan Hale in the center.
He was a spy for Washington, as you know, and was caught by the
British and then executed. He became this hero for America. That's
sort of a given, on the territory of the museum. But then I sort
of backed up a bit, and looked at the Pequot Nation, and that's
the major nation of the area, in terms of historical references.
This is by Captain John Mason, of the Connecticut colony militia.
He wrote a really amazing book in 1637, in which he bragged about
how it was wonderful to murder all these Pequot people. What he
did was actually came and attacked the nation in the middle of
the night. They went by in boats along the Mystic seaport area,
and then the tribe actually celebrated that evening because the
boats went past them. But the boats doubled back around, split
into two forces and attacked them in the middle of the night.
They burned the village and killed whoever came out. Eventually,
what happened was that some of the survivors got sold into slavery
in Jamaica. Captain Mason got title to their land. Mystic and
all the area down there is on the massacre site. These are his
words, This was God crushing his proud enemies, burning them
up in fire, Dunning the Ground with their flesh. It is marvelous
in our eyes. His colleague was Captain John Underwood, from
the Massachusetts Bay colony militia. He also wrote a book, and
in his book, he wrote, Many were burned, men, women and children.
Others were forced out, which our soldiers received and entertained
with the point of the sword. I took those words, with the
Old English font, and the crown. It was all British energy, at
that time; there was no America. Then the dagger cross, and put
it all together alongside one of the American heroes of the colonial
era. This went up, and it had trouble staying. One day I was going
to the airport and I swung by there, and it was just gone. I don't
know what happened; I hate to even ask. They haven't told me a
word about it, yet. This was billed as America's oldest art museum,
are words that I took to Australia. I've been collaborating with
Aboriginal artists. We actually had an exhibit, which I'm going
to talk about now, at that museum, where that work is, at the
Wadsworth. There were sixteen phrases, which I call "Sixteen Songs,"
that were taken out of my own personal history of life in the
Cheyenne Nation and my own ceremonial training. They were taken
to Australia and written separately, one page for one word. In
the ceremony that I'm alluding to, there are sixteen main songs,
sung in sets of four, so that was very important to me. The neuf,
again, the four. The phrases are sky, earth,
offering, patience, tree,
strength, see new growth, green
for awareness, resistance, solstice for
everyone, dance, and water. This
became a point to interpret renewal, the sixteen words. The Aboriginal
artists in Adelaide, Sydney and New South Wales, Australia, took
the words and made new artwork out of the context, about renewal.
Then I gave them my artwork and they gave me theirs; we made an
exhibit called Sixteen Songs, that toured America for about
four years. At every venue, we made public art. The Wadsworth
piece was a public art piece about the massacre of the Pequot
Nation. This was in Colorado Springs, Colorado. We made four different
bus benches that had the different phrases on them.
project started in Dallas-Fort Worth. We made billboards along
the interstate highway, as well. We also did these kinds of panels
on every subway car in St. Louis. Some of the artists got to come
over to collaborate on further work in St. Louis. This is one
of the paintings that were done from the phrases. New growth
was the phrase that was utilized here. This is a work by Gordon
Hooky, who was an artist from Queensland, but he lives in Sydney.
There were fires also in Sydney, about two years before, and it
almost burned the city down. Gordon wanted to make some work that
had two different missions. One was to talk about how fires do
renew things, in a natural way; and also to talk about how Sydney
was perhaps too close to the woods, the parks, and so on. But
the third, maybe more important, part, was that black people were
setting the fires. I think he wanted to burn Sydney down, basically,
and start fresh.
had a residency in Australia that was Lila Wallace Fellowship
for International Research. I traveled to the center of the continent,
called Yluru right next to Ayers Rock, in English.
I lived a bit on the other side of this rock with the tribal community,
in a place called Mutijulu. This is the place they come to renew
themselves; there are caves, and fasting places. Amid all the
tourism are also places that are off-limits to tourists. It was
a great site; I have a lot of strong feelings about Yluru. That
was part of my research, to go there and then come into the cities
and make this new work with the sixteen phrases.
big part of what I find in Australia relates to renewal, and it
comes out of the Great Barrier Reef. The fish, the coral and that
kind of wilderness under the sea are really important to me. I
gravitate toward it all over the world. I always go snorkeling
on the reef, whether in Australia, Hawaii, or the Caribbean. It
kind of relates back to that tree on the prairie, and the ancient
beach I talked about, earlier. It's a matter of exercising these
ideas of renewal, not just keeping them symbolic, but actually
going and finding the places that feed you that way. The color
and movements of the fish and being buoyant in the water are very
fulfilling. The color is amazing; it's better in the water than
it is in the air. These forms have come to inform the neuf series;
these are about 7 by nine 9 or so. They're always done four at
a time, at each studio session. This can take nine months or a
year. All the colors are basically contrasting. It's a visual
image, certainly, but it's also an animal or human being type
of metaphor for diversity, yet having a cohesiveness about it.
been working in Maine lately, on Acadia Island, out of this barn.
It's kind of like that prairie and being in the country. As you
probably know, Maine's a very remote place, but you also have
the water very close. It's been really good for my painting to
be up there working. These paintings are going to be shown in
Santa Fe. They're acrylic on canvas, about six feet or so.
is from the most recent trip back to Australia. It's an older
power station that's not in use any more, in western Sydney. It's
called the Casula Power House. Now they've turned it over to arts
people, so they had a wonderful festival leading up to the Olympics.
It had all the artsdance, music, painting, dramaand
it took over the whole city of Sydney for about a month. They
invited artists to come and collaborate there. I'd been there
before, many times, but I was really gratified that they asked
me to come back. We lived in these little trailers; it was very
posh accommodations, as you can see. We lived together for about
a month, did work together, and just kind of got to know each
other. I finished this piece; this is the center of an atrium.
It's about five stories tall and who knows how long. It's an incredible
room. Some of the artists made pieces for the floor. I came with
these words. I worked with a billboard company, which was great;
we actually got the materials donated. They're all about one meter
tall. It's just a simple messagethree Cheyenne words and
one English word. True, in a colloquial way in Australia,
is like really. It's kind of a positive slang, in
a way. The piece says, Henneg Knoahshev Peavant, true,
learned, shared, good, true. That was my offering, my presentation,
about the whole festival. We came to learn, to share, and to make
good and true things, in a sense. I think that's what we want
to do, from my perspective, with all the artwork that we make.
We come to make an offering; we don't come to make a living, or
make money. You come to give something and to learn something.
That's the spirit in which we try to continue our work as artists.
anybody have questions or comments?
appreciate the use of the Indian language in the public art, because
I think that using the indigenous language is the way to claim
your own culture and subjectivity, etc. I wonder if you have used
the Indian language in your studio art, like the text pieces you
did in '92 and '93.
of Birds: You mean the pastel pieces? Probably not
as much. Here and there, a little bit, but I guess that's one
of the differences in the personal and the political. There is
a real strong premise of reclamation in public art and in your
public persona. But in a private way, like tribalism, where I
come from, is very much just part of your life. It's in English
a lot of the time, but you can actually live your tribal existence
without having to proclaim it, so much. But when you go out in
New York or San Jose, it's not quite as accessible, so it's more
important to make those proclamations.
you get commissioned for a piece, similar to the one you did at
the Wadsworth, to some it's controversial, so do you just have
an open agreement with them that it's up for x amount of days,
or until they deem fit? You went there and you were surprised
it was gone. How does that work with you? Is there some sort of
of Birds: Well, there's always a time limit. I had
already exceeded it. I just never take it out of the ground. I
did up in Minnesota; that was my first mistake. We were good;
we had a certain amount of time. We could never get it back. They
said it was out of there for good; we could never renew the contract.
Actually, in Seattle, that piece was also supposed to be gotten
out. Then the mayor got booted out of the office and there was
a new art commissioner, and he didn't like it either. But eventually
the city bought it, and they honored me in a little ceremony.
Before, they were ready to get it out of there. You just don't
ever want to take it out of the ground, when you make something.
You may luck out and it may withstand the winds of change. My
piece in Denver is a major, permanent work. The whole museum has
done this fundraising. It's the first time that there will be
a very substantial effort. I wonder about the monuments that are
there, like the Nathan Hale. That's the big question to ask ourselves
as artists. We're usually poor, and we're sort of provocative,
so no one's going to give us a bronze, because that would be overtly
permanent. We end up being cheapskates and we get to do sort of
backfire kind of things, rear guard kind of art. The question
to ask yourself is if you made this wonderful, provocative piece
of art today, in twenty years would some young artist be putting
signs next to it saying, Look at this goofy thing here.
I think we've been conditioned to think that since we don't have
any money, we're going to be provocative. But if you have money,
they might make fun of you in fifty years. You have to try to
make a concept that's really going to last. The Denver thing is
like a medicine wheel thing, an infinite kind of historical thing.
I've been trying to work that out so I'm not poked fun at in twenty
wanted to ask you to elaborate a little on your neuf paintings.
You've mentioned that they can be seen as a metaphor for diversity,
with their different colors. In an experience where a lot of people
are multi-ethnic and multi-racial, and considering that culture
isn't really static, I was just wondering if you could elaborate
on why you made the edges of the colors discrete.
of Birds: Well, first they come from a visual point
of view. I've always worked in kind of a figure-ground relationship,
visually. You have to contrast to make it stand out as discrete
or distinct. My process is really built on that premise, in a
technical way. I do, on a tribal way, see things a certain way.
From my perspective, if you look at tribes, there isn't a "native
America" at all. That's a weird premise that doesn't exist. There's
Pueblo people, there's Ponca people, Cheyenne people, and so on.
They're not mixable; but they have respect for the differences
and they honor each other in all kinds of ways. I see that as
being a positive way of respecting, having isolated differences,
yet they could all dance together.
was wondering in relation to the Fort Pitt DAR monument, if you
think that should be removed. In some ways, the fact that it still
remains allows it to be a testament to a particular historical
moment, in which that idea was allowed to be monumentalized. I'm
wondering if you have any thoughts on that.
of Birds: One of my students up at Yale told me that
when this Bosnia thing happenedcorrect me on this if I'm
wrongClinton said, We're a European nation, and that's
why we're over there. He didn't ask me about that; I don't
know if he's asked you about that. It doesn't seem like it's changed
that much from 1930. Suddenly, we're a European nation. And here
it is, there are more people of color than Europeans in America.
That bias is still carrying the day, it seems to me. It does point
out the bias very clearly. But there's no one there to translate
it. A good thing to do would be to have something reply to it,
like if those panels were allowed to be still in the park. Or
they could commission someone to make a statement that wasn't
quite so biased. I think people just take it for granted.
was interested in your magic marker murals. I find them whimsical
and beautiful. The titles, even before you say them, are the most
obvious word that's up there. I was wondering if you preconceive
what you're going to write on them, or if it's just a spur of
the moment kind of thought.
of Birds: Usually it starts with one big word, that
I might have in my own little sketchbook or diary for a few weeks.
Then I start building the other stuff around it. I start with
one thing that is preconceived, but most of it just grows over
time. I don't know if they're ever really done. It's like a diary;
when is your diary done? I see it, and I appreciate it, but I'm
making a new one now. There has to be enough saturation and history
built into the piece when I'm ready to send it on its way. I'll
never work on it again. I'm always working on something new. I'm
pretty casual with them. You can see the paper is torn on the
side and it's all crumpled up. The museums don't like that, but
it's a casual record. I think that's how I see the drawings, is
as a record of an activity. Paintings are that way, too. People
who paint know that. It is just a document of the time you were
in that room, basically. Every now and then, you walk out and
drag the painting out with you, and people look at it. A lot of
the work is just intuitive and builds over time.
return to your public art pieces, when you're writing your proposals,
do you tell the cities what is going to be on your plaques and
of Birds: Um, no. In Denver, I gave them the premise
of what it was going to be about. But I didn't give them a drawing
or anything that showed what it was.
they ever try to revoke the contract?
of Birds: No, not so much, but I've lost some major
commissions lately, over political arguments. There's a lot of
resistance out there. I've been pretty fortunate over the last
ten years. We've never not made something, anywhere in the world.
But lately I've gotten kind of stopped. I don't know if it's because
there's more private money or business people involved. Things
are changing. For my career, there's more resistance today. I
had a big piece in Seattle that they stopped cold. Even the liberal
artists said no. It was in different languages, but it was articulating
issues of Seattle, from my perspective. I was using European languages.
But to tell the story of Seattle in Yiddish, German and Finnish,
and to speak about what had transpired in their languages and
not talk about myself so much, was unallowable. Yet, for them
to have a football helmet with this mythical bird they invented
was not insensitive. They can talk about the native people but
the natives couldn't talk about the white people. That was clear
in the commission. That's very troubling, but that's the way that
said you've encountered a lot of opposition and resistance to
your public artwork. You also said that part of the goal was to
open up dialogue by making the pieces. In addition to the resistance,
have you gotten any positive feedback, or have you found that
it started some useful dialogues?
of Birds: Yes, there's been a lot of support, too.
Like the piece in Clevelandwhen we put it in the paper,
and everyone heard that the Cleveland Art Institute was stopping
the billboards, people sent checks to me through the mail. They
said, "Here's more money to make them." We made more of them than
we did before. I'm direct enough to tell you that the success
is a provocative incident. It was actually in Baseball Weekly
magazine. All the jocks had to see that image. It was a really
funny article. That would never happen if they hadn't tried to
stop me from making the billboard. Having the media transmit the
information is really useful. That's all part of the premise.
But I don't make them, thinking, What will get them pissed
off? when I'm in my studio. I just make the thing. I was having
breakfast uptown, and I stopped at a mailbox and wrote
racism. I had seen someone's hat and it got me going again.
Wherever it happens to be, it always carries forth to be that.
I also wanted to say that if I don't have a strong feeling for
something, like in a public art commission, I just skip it. I
try to have strong feelings for what I make.
had two things to say, one of which is just a comment and not
really a question. I feel like we've been in here all day talking
about text and image being combined together. You said at one
point that if the paintings could talk, they would say all these
things. I'm really interested in the fact that you have your paintings
on one side and your writing somewhere else. It seems to lend
the single written word a lot more power. I wanted to ask about
your connection to text. The second question is that I've tried
to use Yiddish to title my work, and I've found it to be a big
problem. People don't know what it is or that it's even a language.
They think that I've made up something on my own. I wonder if
you've ever been in a community where that's a problem, to use
the Indian language.
of Birds: They don't understand it, you mean?
don't even know that it's a language. They just think that I'm
making words up or putting vowels together. I was in the Midwest
when this happened, which could have been why.
of Birds: It depends on what you want to communicate
with the title. Words that are from another language can be like
a work in themselves, with an English title to tell them what
that was. I guess it depends on what you want the title to serve.
think it depends on what kind of audience it's geared towards.
If you are making this piece for Yiddish people, that won't happen.
If you say you're doing this Yiddish thing and you expect Chinese
people to understand, you have to expect that. It depends on your
audience. Also, I think that sometimes, like if I'm talking to
a group of Americans and there's another Chinese person around,
it's not that we want to ignore the Americans, but we might say,
Excuse me, can we speak our own language? Then we start
speaking our own language, and therefore become powerful, as a
group. We don't, then, have an isolated existence in American
society. So, when you use that, it's a very powerful thing. I
would totally disregard people saying you have made up the words,
because it's just their ignorance.
of Birds: I think what's interesting with that, too,
is that you can articulate issues of difference. I've done that
a lot. It might confound people, but you have to just demonstrate
that this is a different thing. It doesn't need to explain itself.
People will be confounded, but then maybe they will want to know.
more frustrating part was that, after explaining why I was using
it, that it had a lot of reasons behind it, I was told that, instead,
I should go and use Greek or Latin. It couldn't be farther from
think that sometimes when you do a thing like that you can give
a sense of what it feels like not knowing. Sometimes when I accidentally
use things that not everyone knows, people get the feeling of
what it's like not knowing. Also, I thought about, because I use
photography as a medium, when I show a mountain, it's already
talking about this specific mountain, and then it's so hard to
talk about mountain. I think it's powerful sometimes
to use text without image, to evoke the image of a mountain without
showing the image itself. I was wondering if that's why you don't
really use the photographic image in your public art.
of Birds: I think you have to wonder about things in
order to know about it. If you're too explicit, people just turn
the page and go to have lunch. They don't really dig to find anything.
I think you have to hit that edge, where it, just visually, makes
you wonder, What's that? Should I look at that? and then
investigate what that means. That's why a lot of the work isn't
very explicit. In response to another question, I did some early
work with text and image together, and then it sort of split apart,
because it was about a political, didactic thought process. Everyone
kept wanting me to put it back together again. They thought it
would be easier for them if it was together, but that's why it's
not. You have to come and mix it. I like to keep them separated.
It's hard for museums and galleries, because they have to choose
what to make the card for and what to put in the magazine. It's
hard to buy; you have to buy two things. It kills the work in
a financial way, but that's my demand that it stay separate.
had a question that goes back to what you were saying about the
times changing and finding it hard to get funding, possibly because
of business. I've heard a lot of talk lately about the coal industry
taking over land in Wyoming. I wonder if you could talk about
industries involved with reservation land. I'm interested in industry
and its effect on land and home place.
of Birds: I'm not really that involved with that part
of history. If I go to a place, I'll go find it, but I'm not versed
in those land issues. I know from my own experience that it's
hard to come back to the farm. Farming is under fire. A lot of
my friends on the reservation area are Anglo farmers, and there's
been this corporate farming. They make roads that go along the
edge of the land. The youth certainly aren't as enchanted with
farming as their grandfathers or grandmothers were, so it's easy
for people to come back and take over those family places. It's
a very nice way of life. It's hard, but it's very environmental
to be a farmer. That's a little bit troubling to see that happen.
thought the juxtaposition of the format of your text and the text
itself was very interesting and ironic in your Walker Art Center
piece. When you think of westward expansion, the country getting
taken over and the landscape almost ruined, highways are such
a contribution to that. I thought it was ironic that a lot of
your pieces take the format of highway signs and billboards.
of Birds: Yes, even some of the ideas I have take place
on the highway, when I'm driving it. I'm moving across land. The
piece in New York, Stolen/Reclaimed, I wrote on the way
to Amarillo. It was in the middle of the night and I was trying
to find my way through a snowstorm. I was watching these green
signs intently. I was getting sleepy, so I was hanging on by those
signs. My design team actually found that highway gothic font.
It's a computer font, and I found the green reflective stuff that
all highway signs are made out of. I made that piece, and it passes
for an interstate sign. All that capitalistic, westward expansion
stuff is a kind of a reference. But I live in Oklahoma, so I drive
all the time. I would drive 120 miles every two or three days.
It's not only just a political judgment; it's my reality of being
on the road, as well. The sign pieces sort of fit my sensibility
of not being terribly politically polemic or angry in my demeanor,
but always wanting to go on record, as to here is what I do think.
The sign methodology seemed to suit my own psyche. I won't stand
there and argue with you about it, but I will probably deliver
it to your doorstep, and it will be up there for a while. I'd
prefer to let someone else hash it out. I'm also really fascinated
by how gullible we are, to believe the propaganda. Any propaganda,
we buy it in a second. Whatever you have in print, people believe
it very readily. When you're being subversive, that's the best
arena to use, because everyone believes it.
are your views on a more destructive form of art? For instance,
if you saw a Cleveland Indians banner somewhere, would you agree
with writing on it or maybe setting the Fort Pitt monument on
of Birds: I wouldn't mind inciting that kind of behavior.
you find that to be art?
of Birds: I don't know. It would be an expression.
I don't know if it matters if it's art or not. I think people
should express themselves however they care to. People usually
wonder about if it's art when they don't want you to do it. My
students are always doing that. They say, That's not art,
because they're scared of it. If it doesn't bother you, I would
go ahead and do it, I think. In that Fort Pitt thing, they tore
all my signs apart. I don't know if that was art, but they made
it pretty clear. They were confused; they thought I was a white
supremacist. They thought I had made the DAR thing. I do think
that in public art, that's part of the whole equation is the public's
response. I never want to wash off the graffiti; I exhibit the
signs torn in half. That's somebody else's response to me, and
I accept that. But I think people should make any kind of action
they like. That's a part of itpublic action.
just going to make a comment. I like both of the things that you
do, the public art and the studio art. I think that in the public
art there are times you're being subversive and also honoring
the people. But I think your painting is really beautiful, because
that's where you remember who you are and where you're coming
from, and how beautiful your surroundings are.
of Birds: Thanks. I think that's really important,
and something to consider. Going back to European models, there's
a model that says you have to make this monolithic art practice.
You can see it all over town. Pick up any listing and you'll see
this push to make it this one image. I think we're all multidimensional
people; we all have different roles that we play in society, in
terms of responsibilities and so on. But the European model will
demand that you be one thing. That's so biased and limited. Jimmy
Durham said something about how we all should be the conscience
of America, the people on the street and the hot dog vendor should
be expected to have views on this government. When we get so monolithic,
suddenly we're the conscience, we're the spiritual leaders, and
then the guy who sweeps up in here is nothing, he doesn't matter
at all. He doesn't have any idea, because no one demands that
he have one. If we can all diversify our roles, it's much more
productive. That goes back to a tribal society. In my own case,
I'll be working in about three weeks as a leader of a ceremonial
activity. I'll be mentoring a young man and his life will be in
my hands. He'll have no water and food for three days, and I'll
have to make sure he lives through those days. His father and
mother will be watching very closely while I have him there. That
will be my job. But that doesn't mean I'm not a painter, a father,
a professor. You can't just say you're one thing. Your life has
to have these dimensions, so why shouldn't your art? It's a new
model to have one solitary job. It never was like that.
sort of takes care of my question. I was going to ask you to go
back to the question of language. I was thinking about the issue
of translation and how the meaning gets lost when you translate
something into another language. I wasn't sure whether English
was your first language or not. The second thing is, in a larger
sense, some people say the artist's role is mainly that of a translator.
In the old days, a wise person who knows more about spirits or
the other side would translate to other people. Do you consider
yourself, in that regard, at least partially in a role of translator?
of Birds: Yeah, I think so. But there, again, that
kind of follows the European model of the "conscience," that the
artist is going to reflect our culture and no one else is going
to. I do handle that, I guess, in a lot of ways. My art practice
chooses to do that.